Hard to Digest Foods: Are You Ready for Some Surprises?
By: Julie Mancuso, B.A., R.H.N., JM Nutrition
It’s a fact that some foods are hard to digest. It’s also a fact that most of us experience some form of digestive problem at one point or another, no matter how robust the digestive system. For many of us, the digestive distress is often caused by the foods we eat. Some of these are well-known while others will surprise.
My Personal Struggle with Digestion
The topic of digestive troubles stirs my emotions because I struggled with all sorts of gastro-intestinal problems the better part of my adult life. It was the primary reason why I decided on a career in nutrition over fifteen years ago. In all honesty, I still find food digestion challenging at times, but it sure has gotten better since I improved my own eating habits.
Because of this digestive adversity, I’ve learned—from research, personal experience, and the experience of my clients—a great deal about what foods are hard to digest and which are more benign.
When digestive trouble strikes, it can leave us frustrated, often making it difficult to determine the root causes. Not to mention, the grumbling, churning and general discomfort can sometimes make it hard to enjoy life, especially food.
Well, the solution may just be found in the foods we eat, the analysis of which should be the first course of action to take when suffering from digestive distress.
We all know that if we consume large amounts of fatty, greasy, fried, salty or sweet foods, we are likely to trigger some form of digestive discomfort, varying from slight churning in some to debilitating cramps and pain in others.
But other, less obvious hard to digest foods exist, ones which can greatly upset the digestive system, causing seemingly inexplicable rumbling, pains and a generally uncomfortable existence.
Hard to Digest Foods
Raw onions can be hard to digest, for some.
Besides leaving you with that pungent and to some, repugnant onion-breath, the resulting gas and general digestive discomfort can be a nuisance. Others can burp and bloat shortly after ingesting onions in their raw form.
Onions are hard to digest largely because they contain fructans, which are not absorbed very well in the small intestine. In fact, as fructans ferment, they can cause a great deal of digestive distress in the form of bloating, gas and diarrhea. I recommend avoiding raw onions if your digestive system is sensitive, especially if you have a hot date.
Read more about which foods contain fructans in this article from Healthline.
If you’re just not prepared to give up those beloved raw onions and must have them on your burger or sandwich, try reducing the portion and see if the unpleasant symptoms go away.
Cooking the onions may also reduce the severity of the mentioned symptoms, so you can try this as well.
Furthermore, taking digestive enzymes may help to alleviate some of these gastrointestinal disturbances caused by raw onions. Probiotics can be of assistance in this area as well.
When considering taking supplements, it is always a good idea to seek the help of a qualified practitioner who can help you select the right digestive enzymes. Please don’t take it upon yourself to do so.
Raw Fruits and Vegetables
And you thought all fruits and vegetables were good for you…
Well, they no doubt are, for a number of reasons.
Some people, however, experience gastrointestinal problems when certain fruits and vegetables are digested, something that is often omitted from lists of hard to digest foods.
Fruits and vegetables, however, may cause digestive agitation.
Some fruits and vegetables contain an insoluble fiber—a fiber that does not dissolve in water. While such fiber has the benefit of passing through a person’s system rather quickly, taking other foods with it, and thereby helping to clean out your system, it can also irritate the walls of your colon in the process, causing discomfort and even pain.
Specifically, I encourage limiting some vegetables (more on that later) and the skins of fruits and vegetables as they can be harder to digest. Again, the best way to tell if these are the culprits responsible for your digestive problems is to keep a food log where you note the eaten foods and how they made you feel shortly consumption for at least a week. If you find that your digestive system reacts well to fruits and vegetables, then move on to the next food item on the list.
Cabbage and Cruciferous Vegetables
While cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower have a number of important nutrients needed by humans, they also contain indigestible sugars. As a result, many people experience gas, flatulence, belching and general abdominal discomfort after ingesting these. Consume in small quantities if you suspect these to aggravate the symptoms.
Keep in mind that cruciferous vegetables are much easier on the digestive system when cooked rather than when eaten raw. If cooking does little to avert the mentioned aches and pains, try to eliminate them altogether to see if you feel the difference.
Despite the fact that it contains a good deal of the necessary, healthy fibre, which we all need to promote digestive movement and to keep us full for longer, corn also has another type of fibre called cellulose—something humans have a difficult time breaking down. The end result: abdominal pain and gas. If you’re going to consume corn, chew thoroughly to help digestion.
For some time now dairy has been increasingly identified as potentially hard to digest. It’s important to remember that dairy doesn’t adversely affect all people, only some. It also affects people in varying degrees, so it may be hard to digest for you but not your loved one.
Furthermore, dairy contains lactose, which is not easily broken down by the digestive system. As you no doubt know, some people have a complete intolerance to lactose and can become seriously ill upon its consumption. The rest of us, on the other hand, may just experience some gas and bloating, the intensity and frequency of which can vary from person to person. Some people who reduce their dairy intake, experience immediate improvement in this area.
I highly recommend paying heed to how you feel immediately after ingesting any dairy product. Keeping a food log that lists how you feel after certain foods are eaten can help you to identify a potential pattern. This applies to any ingested food, not just dairy. Once a pattern is recognized, you can try to limit the hard to digest food or eliminate it altogether, if need be.
There’s a reason why for centuries the Europeans coveted spices like precious stones. Without them, food can be bland and, in some cases, barely edible. Spices are used by all cultures, and are so great in number that most of us aren’t even familiar with many of them.
Spices, however, may impact more than just the flavour of your food. While some people don’t seem to be negatively affected upon the ingestion of spices, others are not as lucky and find them hard to digest.
The matter is complicated even further by the fact that some people are only affected by certain spices, and not others. You’ll have to gauge this yourself by keeping a close eye on how your own body reacts. The fact is that spices are known to irritate the lining of the esophagus, making them hard to digest, and as such, should be consumed in small amounts by people who experience digestive problems.
Sorbitol, a sugar-alcohol, is an artificial sweetener often found in sugar-free gum and a number of other sweets found at your neighbourhood supermarket.
Sorbitol takes a long time to digest and may cause gas build up as a result, particularly in those who are prone to various digestive conditions.
In addition, chewing gum itself can cause you to swallow a large amount of air, leading to trapped gas and possible discomfort or even pain, making the problem worse.
In short, foods such as tomatoes, oranges and lemons have been found to increase acid reflux. As such, they should be limited if you have digestive troubles.
Processed foods are packaged foods that are not in their natural form. These foods are often loaded with additives, preservatives, flavourings and other chemicals. They also contain sodium and frequently, white flour. Most of such foods are lacking the necessary fibre for proper digestion, and subsequently cause constipation, making them hard to digest.
Preparing foods from scratch and eating them in their most natural form is highly recommended. This is an effective way of eliminating the additives found in processed foods as the cause of your digestive disturbances.
We’ve all heard the old saying that beans are hard to digest and cause flatulation. Although we need to dismiss many of the nutrition old wives’ tales as they are simply outdated and have since been proven to be misconceptions, this one is largely true.
Despite the fact that they are abundant in fibre and high in protein, which are both essential for a healthy diet, beans contain a sugar that is hard to digest for many people. When this sugar enters your digestive system, it creates gas, which can be quite unpleasant for many. That is not to say you should strike beans from your diet in their entirety, but consume sparingly if you’re hypersensitive.
Surprised to see citrus juices on the list of hard to digest foods? Most people are.
Citrus juices, however, can irritate the stomach and cause discomfort in people who are susceptible to digestive problems such as acid reflux, often aggravating such symptoms. Pay close attention and see if juice is responsible.
This one is not much of a surprise. The vast majority of carbonated drinks aren’t good for overall health anyway. But being acidic in nature, carbonated drinks also distend the stomach, causing discomfort in some. Plain and simple. Avoid.
In addition to the many adverse effects of regularly consuming alcohol in significant amounts, certain alcoholic drinks such as beer have been known to trigger gas in some people—a fact that is not widely known by the general population.
Drinking alcohol can also inflame the lining of the stomach, preventing nutrients from being properly absorbed by your system.
In addition, alcohol dehydrates the body. This lack of proper water intake in itself can lead to constipation, discomfort and pain. Unfortunately, the bottoms up can make your digestive system bottom out, so pay heed.
Yes, gluten again.
Gluten can be difficult for some to digest, not just celiacs—as I’ve written before. You may even have a sensitivity to it and not know it.
The usual suspects here can be breads, pastas and cereals. But there are some less obvious foods that can also contain a fair amount of gluten: beer, certain sauces, dressings and processed foods, and as such, should not be discounted when trying to limit gluten intake.
It’s important to keep in mind that not all people may experience troublesome symptoms after ingesting gluten, but its reduction should be considered if plagued by ongoing digestive problems.
The list I offer here is by no means an exclusive one, but more of a sweeping guideline. Some of the foods to which I allude may be common knowledge, but a few are definitely wolves in sheep’s clothing, in terms of their impact on digestion, ones which people tend to overlook when trying to pinpoint the causes of their digestive troubles.
If you’re a sufferer who’s looking for answers, I strongly encourage you to start with a reduction or elimination of the above foods. Look at the list, follow the suggestions, observe how you feel and discover for yourself. That’s the only sure way of knowing what affects you as an individual.
As always, I encourage everyone to seek the help of a trained professional in the process to guide you along, offering insight and support. Digestive problems can be overwhelming and exasperating—something with which I can certainly empathize, and as such, they require due attention. Only then we can assist people in overcoming their digestive problems and help them feel better.
If you found this article informative, or know anyone suffering from any type of digestive problem who could find this information useful, please share.
Julie Mancuso is a registered holistic Toronto nutritionist who has been counseling clients for over 15 years. Julie’s personalized approach has helped thousands reach their health, wellness and nutrition goals.
Julie’s blog has been named one of the Top 100 Nutrition Blogs, Websites and Newsletters to Follow in 2018 by Feedspot. So don’t miss out and subscribe to both her newsletter and blog.